India offers secy-level talks with Pak

NEW DELHI: India has proposed foreign secretary-level talks with Pakistan, a senior government source said today, signalling a major breakthrough in relations frozen since the 2008 attacks in Mumbai. Pakistan’s foreign ministry confirmed that the offer had been

made, but said it was “seeking clarification” on the content

of any meeting before responding formally. The proposal marks a significant shift on the Indian side.

Until now, New Delhi had steadfastly refused to counter a resumption of talks until Islamabad brings those behind the Mumbai attacks to justice and cracks down on militant groups operating on its soil. “India will enter these discussions with an open mind,” the government source told AFP.

“We will raise all relevant issues from our side. Counter-terrorism will be raised, as well as other issues that will contribute to creating an atmosphere of peace and stability between the two countries. “Let us not pre-judge the outcome,” the source added.

India and Pakistan launched a peace dialogue in 2004 that helped to significantly lower tensions between the nuclear-armed South Asian rivals — most notably over the disputed region of Kashmir. But that was broken off after the November 2008 attacks by Islamist gunmen on Mumbai that killed 166 people and which India blamed on the Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) militant group.

Observers said foreign secretary-level talks would not amount to a resumption of the full “composite” dialogue initiated in 2004, but they would be a large step in that direction.

News of the offer came a day after India announced that its interior minister, P Chidambaram, would travel to Pakistan later this month to attend a regional meeting. He will be the first cabinet member to cross the border since the Mumbai assault.

While the international community has generally lauded the Indian government for showing restraint in the wake of the Mumbai attacks, pressure has been growing in recent months for New Delhi to re-engage with Islamabad given the fraught situation in Afghanistan.

The United States, battling the Taliban in Afghanistan, is keen for the two rivals to keep the rest of the region trouble-free. Pakistani officials have been pushing Washington to persuade India to resume a dialogue, claiming the perceived threat from their powerful neighbour limits their military’s capacity to fight Al-Qaeda and the Taliban.

Islamabad’s fears are fuelled by massive Indian investment in Afghanistan, where Pakistan has historically sought influence to offset Indian might.

Uday Bhaskar, head of the National Maritime Foundation, a New Delhi-based strategic affairs think tank, said India always knew that a resumption of dialogue was inevitable. “The fact is that India must engage with Pakistan. Both geography and the nature of Indo-Pak relations don’t allow us the luxury to remain unengaged,” Bhaskar said.